A player's player
Who can forget A. G. Satwender's stylish cover drive and his handy left-arm spin bowling?
Cricketing careers often hang on slender threads. Here, ability and luck waltz amidst swings in fortunes. On some occasions, the difference could be no more than skidding wheels on a slippery surface.
A.G. Satwender Singh appeared destined for glory. He was a natural — light on his feet and heavy with his strokes. The right-hander often pierced the gaps on the off-side with a surgeon's precision. Simply put, watching Satwender in full flow soothed one's senses. The front-footed cover-drive, all timing, grace and balance, was his signature shot.
But then, fate conspired against him. A scooter accident in Chennai during the late 60s meant Satwender could never realise his dream of representing the country and join his brothers Kripal and Milkha as India cricketers.
Satwender's father, accomplished left-arm spin bowling all-rounder, A.G. Ram Singh, had figured in two unofficial ‘Tests.' Years later, when Ram Singh, Kripal and Milkha were part of a group photo of ‘Test' cricketers from Tamil Nadu, former India batsman Abbas Ali Baig whispered to Satwender, “I am sure you would give anything to be in that picture.”
“That was when it hurt,” remembers the 65-year-old Satwender. “I could feel the pain of not representing the country like my father and brothers.”
That moment cut like a knife but the genial Satwender wears his disappointment lightly. His former team-mates in the Tamil Nadu side call him a player's player, someone who reached out to others.
Indeed, this famous family of Sikhs from Amritsar became part of Tamil Nadu's cricketing folklore.
Blending with the ethos
The family blended well with the culture and ethos of Tamil Nadu; everyone in the household spoke fluent Tamil. Satwender, who made 2726 runs at 39.50 and scalped 29 batsmen at 23.10 with his handy left-arm spin, from 60 first class games in a career between 1963 and '76, owes much of his development as a cricketer to father Ram Singh.
“You know, he was also a fantastic coach. He was unhappy that none of his sons bowled left-arm spin like him and converted me into a left-arm spinner. Then he felt, I was not bowling with a clean action and had a ruler tied to my bowling arm to prevent it from bending. He made us all bowl at one stump and kept a four-anna coin on the good length area. If we hit the coin, we could keep it. He was a very good spinner, could turn the ball big since he gave it a real rip,” recalls Satwender.
With the family living on Wallahjah Road, the nets at Chepauk were just across the road. “Those days, the TNCA used to have four nets for the state and league cricketers and all the brothers would spend considerable time at practice sessions.”
Satwender recalls his Ranji Trophy debut in '63 when Tamil Nadu took on Kerala. All the three brothers figured in the eleven. “Kripal was the captain. Milkha came in at No. 3, I walked in at No. 4 and Kripal took strike at No. 5,” he recollects.
Fleet-footed, Satwender had the ability to convert the length with judicious feet movement. He invariably came up trumps in the duels against great spinners Bhagwat Chandrasekar and Erapalli Prassana in the matches against Karnataka.
“Chandra was unlike any other spinner I faced. He was extremely quick off the pitch and if you went on your back-foot to him early, you could be in serious trouble. Prasanna could make the ball hang in the air, and had plenty of variations. But I could face them without much discomfort by getting on to the front-foot,” Satwender reminisces.
However, the spinner who troubled him the most — during the first division league matches in the city — was off-spinner S. Venkatraghavan. “He had a high-arm action, Prasanna was more round-arm. Venkat was extremely accurate, and could bowl both a floater and a leg-cutter. He also read the batsmen well. Once, he dismissed me cheaply. Later, when I had a chat with him, he told me, ‘I noticed that you got on to the back-foot against me in the early stages of your innings. I got you there.'”
Leg-spinning great V.V. Kumar is another bowler Satwender admires. With his leg-injury — he was operated for damaged cartilages — mostly confining him to the slip in the second half of his career, Satwender saw the master spinners bowl from rather close quarters.
He is nostalgic about cricket in the 60s and 70s — “during a league match between my club Alwarpet and State Bank, the Marina ground used to be full” — and is worried about the rapidly diminishing spectator-response to even marquee Ranji Trophy matches these days.
Having played under different captains, Satwender rates the late M.L.Jaisimha the best. “I once played for South Zone in the Duleep Trophy and Jaisimha, the skipper, walked up to me, told me to relax, and implored me to play my natural game. He took the pressure off me. Jaisimha was brilliant with his field placing and bowling changes but also had great man-management skills.”
Like most cricketers of his generation, Satwender played for passion and pride. He sums it up: “It was a gentleman's game that we loved to play. There was no money in the game then. There was great camaraderie among the players.”
Queried about Tamil Nadu, despite its wealth of talent, under-achieving in Ranji Trophy, Satwender replies, “We lack the killer instinct that a side like Bombay has. Bombay also has the culture of the senior cricketers going out of their way to nurture the emerging players.”
Happily married with a son and a daughter — both of them live abroad — Satwender's career on and off the field has been one of commitment and loyalty. He played all his cricket for only one club — Alwarpet — in the TNCA first division league and has worked for only one company — Lucas TVS.
Now the Chief Operating Officer (Business Development and Marketing), Satwender believes the concept of team-spirit he imbibed as a cricketer has helped him in his professional life off the arena.
He looks into your eyes and shakes your hand with the honesty of a strong, resilient man. There are some, who, despite shattered dreams, can make their lives successful and radiant.